B efore Lillie Belle Allen, there was Carl Williams.

While Allen's 1969 riot-related murder has remained an unhealed wound for 32 years, Williams' death has gnawed at York's minority community even longer.

On Nov. 11, 1965, the 38-year-old black man's body was found by a rabbit hunter in Small Athletic Field. A coroner's inquest ruled he died of natural causes -- two heart attacks during his last few days.

But suspicions and questions about Williams' death have lingered for 36 years, a source of resentment and distrust. Family members and others have long believed the circumstances of his death were suspicious, and say the case was never properly investigated and addressed by authorities. Consider:

Williams' wife, Kathleen, had trouble identifying her husband's remains because she and two of her children say his face appeared swollen and beaten.

A police officer's blackjack was found near the body.

Two police officers who picked up Williams for public drunkenness initially lied about whether they'd seen him and whether they'd dropped him off at the field.

An internal police investigation found the officers had falsified their call log to conceal they had picked up Williams.

Both officers were suspended for their actions in the episode, and one was demoted a rank.

Neighbors of the athletic field reported hearing a man in the park calling for help about the time Williams would have been there.

While the officers maintained Williams had requested a ride to the field, some question why he would ask to be dropped off far from his home in 23-degree weather.

And finally, Williams' daughter said her father had made specific plans to buy her a dinette set that night, and a carved ham was sitting on her father's kitchen counter when she arrived from Lancaster. Why, she wonders, would he ask two police officers to drop him off at the field when he clearly had prepared a dinner for her in anticipation of a shopping excursion?

They're legitimate questions and suspicions, but do they add up to foul play?

Authorities at the time didn't think so. A pathologist testified Williams had two heart attacks within 10 days of his death, asserting that the second one killed him. He also noted Williams' blood alcohol content was .29 percent, nearly three times the legal limit for driving in Pennsylvania today.

The district attorney at the time closed the case.

But that merely opened the door to 36 years of resentment and suspicion among those who believe there are too many unanswered questions here.

The lingering doubts about the authorities' conclusions aggravated a racial climate in York that was already heating up due to a perception of overly aggressive police and canine patrols in black neighborhoods. In 1968, those tensions boiled over into street riots, and again in 1969, when the as-yet-unsolved murders of police Officer Henry Schaad and Lillie Belle Allen were committed.

Now -- with probes into those riot murders under way -- is the right time to try to get to the bottom of Carl Williams' death, too.

Nationally known forensic expert James Starrs has made it his specialty to dig up the answers to long-buried questions. The George Washington Law School professor's exhumation of slain 1960s civil rights leader Medgar Evers helped gain convictions in that racism-fueled murder. He's also conducted forensic examinations on such historical figures as Sacco and Vanzetti, Lizzie Borden's parents, Jesse James, Meriwether Lewis, John Wilkes Booth and the Boston Strangler.

Starrs says Carl Williams' death is an excellent case for exhumation and re-examination. He says a forensic autopsy might answer the question of whether Williams died of natural or unnatural causes. He's so intrigued by the case, in fact, that he visited York last weekend to gather information in preparation for exhuming the body.

 

Carl Williams' family understandably welcomes Starrs' involvement, and so should York County District Attorney Stan Rebert.

While Rebert says he has no plans to reopen the Williams case, he should reconsider his position if so warranted by Starrs' findings. When one of the nation's top forensic expert comes to town and re-investigates a nagging case (at his own expense, no less), the DA would do a disservice to the cause of justice if he didn't at least keep an open mind.